Hey hey, you you — get off of my cloud

by Mathew on September 29, 2008 · 12 comments

Let’s be clear about one thing: Richard Stallman is a legend in the programming world, and his opinion is worth listening to. He was one of the brains behind the Free Software Foundation and other initiatives, and has been a force for freedom and open source and all of those other good things for many years. He also has a real guru/holy man kind of hair and beard thing going on, which clearly works for him, and I admire that. That said, however, I think his Chicken Little routine with regard to “cloud computing” is a little over-done. I know RMS would rather that we all program our own operating systems and use software that we whipped up with vi and a programmable calculator, but that just isn’t going to happen.

The fact is that people want their computers and software and so on to be convenient, and to let them work faster and easier. Yes, it matters that things are free and open and that monopolies are resisted, etc. But at the same time, reality means that lots of people use Windows and so they are already trapped to a certain extent. From that point of view, moving to a “cloud” model — even if it does involve storing all their files and mail and photos with The Great Google in the Sky — is actually a good thing. Is it any better to have your email trapped in a .pst file that can only be read by a very expensive version of Microsoft Office? No.

Richard would rather that we all use a copy of a “freedom-respecting program,” which is great. It would be nice if we all made our own clothes out of hemp fibre, and used wind power to generate all of our energy, and so on. But that probably isn’t going to happen any time soon either. Should you be aware of the control that Google and others have over your files and content? Of course you should. And you should back it up somewhere, just in case. But telling people not to use services that are free and make their lives more convenient is like telling people never to go outside because they might get skin cancer someday. Thanks for the heads up, Rich.

(Note: Reuven Cohen of Enomaly has by far the best photo illustration included in his post on the subject)

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  • http://www.darrenbarefoot.com Darren

    No matter how much of a guru this guy is, I'm suspicious of anybody who surfs the web using email.

  • http://www.profy.com/ Svetlana Gladkova

    Hm, I feel like you are overdoing it a little. While it is not realistic to expect that we all move to our desktops completely for all the tasks from now on and preferably only use OSS installed. But I somehow felt that the idea of the interview was mostly to draw attention to the problem and mention it exists and hopefully make some people realize they should not rely completely on 3rd-party solutions where you have no control and acting at least somewhat reasonably by implementing a decent backup system.

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  • Matt

    Well, if you're a geek and spend all your time in front of your pimped-out coding box in your basement, then cloud computing makes little sense. But if you actually get out once and a while, then ease of access trumps other considerations.

    That said, I agree that cloud computing is overhyped. We are in such a rush to sign up for each new aggregating/mashup/online app service that we neglect to reflect on whether there might not be simpler solutions. I dream of a world of interconnected, DIY wikis/blikis — what a world that would be! There would be lot more room for creativity and individuality — and less of a twitterlicious soundbox.

    But the real driver of these changes is mobile computing. The average iPhone user needs slick cloud computing.

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  • Tom Poe

    Interesting that you like the idea of phoning home with every keystroke.

  • Jamaal

    If you work with computers, you most likely use dozens if not hundreds of freedom-respecting programs a day, including most of the infrastructure of the entire internet. Equating trusting your vital data to locally hosted as-free-as-possible software to living in caves and fishing with your hands is a little disingenuous.

    Also, no one would slight anyone using the cloud for things that are convenient and not crucial or overly private. I, in the past, have used gym lockers, coatrooms, and left my shoes at the doors of establishments and residences that would prefer that I not wear them inside. Equivocating between that and “[...]moving to a 'cloud' model — even if it does involve storing all their files and mail and photos with The Great Google in the Sky[...]” is not constructive.

    Just like the original dot-com bubble burst when people realized that e-commerce was just really reactive catalog shopping and wouldn't alter the laws of physics to create money out of thin air, eventually people will realize that cloud computing is just storing every document that you have offsite, just 1000x less trustworthy, and accessible and deletable by at least 1000 employees of Google at any particular time, from any location on Earth.

    That being said, I love being able to test out and deploy stuff on EC2, just don't expect to see my medical records or client lists in the cloud any time soon. I would much prefer to have them locked inside a .pst file that is only openable by an outdated version of Outlook that only runs on Windows ME, or even, maybe, take Stallman's advice because he thinks about the implications stuff a lot more than I do (and the solutions that are the result of what he's established are often really nice and easy to use!), and shouldn't be flippantly dismissed like some ignorant throwback dirty hairy hippie. Even though he is a throwback hairy hippie. He also may be dirty, but I haven't smelled him. He looks a little dirty.

  • http://www.blaise.ca/ Blaise Alleyne

    I don't think it's as binary as RMS seems to suggest that it is in that interview, there is a “freedom-respecting” medium. Over at autonomo.us, for example (which the FSF has been supportive of), people in the free software community are working out what it means to be freedom-respecting in the cloud. Take identi.ca for example.

    Of course it's inevitable that people will use services that are free and convenient. What's important, from a free software perspective, is to make sure there are more of those services like Identi.ca, less like Google's services (which I admittedly use a lot). RMS gets that on some level at least, though that's still new territory for the FSF that they're currently trying to feel out.

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  • http://windows7news.com/ windows 7 news

    It would be nice if we all made our own clothes out of hemp fiber, and used wind power to generate all of our energy, and so on. But that probably isn’t going to happen any time soon either.

  • http://windows7news.com/ windows 7 news

    It would be nice if we all made our own clothes out of hemp fiber, and used wind power to generate all of our energy, and so on. But that probably isn’t going to happen any time soon either.

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